Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of "Bye Bye Birdie"

Bye Bye Birdie, the wholesome, rollicking musical, now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House, is the perfect diversion for a mid-summer’s eve (or matinee).  The production is entertaining, with a tuneful score, winning performances, and exuberant choreography.

The impetus for the plot was the real-life hysteria created among teenage girls when it was announced Elvis Presley was being drafted into the army.  From there, book writer Michael Stewart crafted a story about an Army-bound rock star, Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter), that heads off to Sweet Apple, Ohio to plant one last kiss on one of his fanatical fans, Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel), live on the Ed Sullivan Show before he heads off to basic training.  This doesn’t sit well with Kim’s new boyfriend, Hugo Peabody (Alex Walton) or her family.  Trying to keep Conrad in check among the post-pubescent female crowd is his manager Albert Peterson (George Merrick), who has relationship troubles of his own with distraught girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Janet Dacal) and insufferable mother Mae Peterson (Kristine Zbornik).  In the end, the chaos that ensued is smoothed over, small town life returns to normal, and romantic strife is happily resolved.

The cast of Bye Bye Birdie during the "Honestly Sincere" production number.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Stewart’s libretto humorously pokes fun at the shift in popular music to the rock beat and how adults reacted to this growing phenomenon.   While serving up classical musical comedy fare, he also manages to effectively satirize the country’s pandemonium over Elvis Presley’s induction and the cultural impact of The Ed Sullivan Show.  While today’s younger audience members may not appreciate the social significance of these two prominent and influential personalities the lack of knowledge will not deter theatergoers from the enjoying the show’s many pleasures.  

The music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, their first for a Broadway musical, is high-spirited and melodic.  There are such well-known songs among the score such as “Put on a Happy Face,” “Kids,” and “The Telephone Hour.”  “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” is a comic masterpiece and “One Last Kiss” and “Honestly Sincere” perfectly lampoon the burgeoning rock ‘n roll movement.

The cast of Bye Bye Birdie during the "The Telephone Hour" production number.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The actors, whether bursting in song or dance, seem to be enjoying themselves greatly on stage.  They are led by George Merrick as Albert Peterson.  He is a world class whiner, a hopeless momma’s boy, but also a man with a mission, both romantically and professionally.  Janet Dacal as Rosie Alvarez is sufficiently flummoxed, distressed, and resourceful in her pursuit of Albert’s affections.  Tristen Buettel as Kim MacAfee is charmingly rebellious as the teenager is thrust into the national spotlight.  Alex Walton as Hugo Peabody is amusing in his perpetual state of bewilderment. Rhett Guter, with swiveling hips ablaze, is self-assured, high octane, and also detached as rock and roller Conrad Birdie.  Warren Kelley as Harry MacAfee and Kristine Zbornik as Mrs. Mae Peterson almost steal the show with their well-timed patter, tart remarks, and penetrating stares.  Kelley also does an outstanding job in two of the show’s signature numbers—“Hymn for a Sunday Evening” and “Kids.”

Rose (Janet Dacal) and Albert (George Merrick) during "Put on a Happy Face."  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Patricia Wilcox’s choreography is energetic, playful, and flirtatious.  This is so aptly illustrated in such production numbers as “The Telephone Hour,” “Honestly Sincere,” and “A Lot of Livin’ To Do.”  Each one is a crowd-pleasing showstopper.

Jenn Thompson’s sure-handed direction keeps the musical’s pacing in high gear.   She effortlessly transitions the show’s scenes between comic hijinks to relationship tumults to bratty teenage disobedience.  She also cleverly incorporates the title song, originally written for the film version of the musical, into the production.

Tobin Ost’s primary set piece of a wall-sized venetian blind is both inconspicuous and noticeable.   It’s a clever design to allow us to act as  voyeurs into the trials and tribulations of the Sweet Apple denizens as their lives are turned topsy-turvey by the hubbub over Conrad Birdie’s visit.

Bye Bye Birdie, at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 8th.

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